Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2021

The Watermelon Boys, by Ruqaya Izzidien

The review of The Watermelon Boys in the Asian Review of Books was intriguing: a retelling of WW1 from an Iraqi perspective.

This is the blurb:

It is the winter of 1915 and Iraq has been engulfed by the First World War. Hungry for independence from Ottoman rule, Ahmad leaves his peaceful family life on the banks of the Tigris to join the British-led revolt. Thousands of miles away, Welsh teenager Carwyn reluctantly enlists and is sent, via Gallipoli and Egypt, to the Mesopotamia campaign.

Carwyn’s and Ahmad’s paths cross, and their fates are bound together. Both are forever changed, not only by their experience of war, but also by the parallel discrimination and betrayal they face.

Ruqaya Izzidien’s evocative debut novel is rich with the heartbreak and passion that arise when personal loss and political zeal collide, and offers a powerful retelling of the history of British intervention in Iraq.

The novel begins well but the hectoring about British colonialism becomes wearying after a while, especially in the second half of the book.  It’s supposed to be a historical novel, not a lecture on anti-colonialism.

First novels are usually about getting something off the author’s chest, and this author has no shortage of issues with which to educate the reader.

Set mostly in Iraq but also briefly in Wales, the novel tells the story of how two young men came to be involved in the the First World War in Iraq. Ahmad joins the British Army (after first fighting on the other side for the Ottomans) because he believes British promises to liberate Baghdad from the Turkish colonisers. Carwyn, who hates the British since his father died after a truncheon blow to the head during a miner’s strike in Wales, is bullied into enlisting by his stepfather.  Both of them, like most men in WW1, would rather not be killing anybody.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

However, while the main focus in on educating her readers about the evils of colonialism on an harmonious Arabic society, there’s also the oppression of women in a patriarchal society to deal with.  A #MeToo moment segues into a brutal murder. There’s also the gendered roles in society exemplified by Dabriya, Ahmad’s wife, who is beautiful, stoic and resilient.  She is firmly ensconced in the domestic realm and in Ahmad’s nostalgic memories (which are occasionally coyly lustful).  But when her son is at risk she leaps onto horse despite the disapproval of men and gallops off to warn him. A pretty good effort if she’d never sat on a horse before, eh?

There’s a not-so-casual mention that the school that Amira might attend is the first girls’ school that Yusuf has ever seen in Baghdad.  Although there’s nothing more than a childhood friendship between them, Yusuf fancies Amira, and he doesn’t want her to be separated from him.  (One might also think that he doesn’t want her to be better educated than he is, but that’s not in the book).  She is from a wealthy Jewish family, and he is from a poor Muslim family that sells watermelons (hence the banal title), but that was no problem.  According to this novel Arabs were tolerant of Jews and Christians before invaders such as the Ottomans came along.

Resurrections are surprisingly common.  Ahmad is tortured by his memory of being unable to save a friend when they are fighting the Ottomans — it’s what prompts him to desert and hide out in peace until he changes his mind and his loyalty and joins the British. But at a crucial moment Karim turns up alive and well—and since Ahmad’s defection to the Brits, he’s now on the other side i.e. the Ottomans.  (Unless I missed it) there is no explanation for how he survived after all.

There’s also the unconvincing return from Ottoman captivity of Dawood, a wealthy Jew.  He was dragged away, the only one in his family to be taken, and the expectation is that he will have been killed.  But no, after some time, he is released, unharmed, and there’s no explanation about why or how. The friendship between Dawood and Ahmad founders because the Jews flourish under British rule and Dawood admires the work done during reconstruction. Later on, Arabs turning on Jews is attributed to the Brits rewarding them…

Further on, there’s an even more unconvincing ‘resurrection’ when Ayesha’s attacker comes back into the plot.  He’s made himself unrecognisable, and is in cahoots with the Brits after they’ve betrayed their promise.  He sabotages the Iraqi attempts to negotiate.  So how is he identified? One of the British soldiers, who’s only ever known him under his new assumed identity, calls him by his old name…

Creaky plot points such as these are not uncommon in first novels, though a good editor would resolve them, but what’s less acceptable is the way the Armenian genocide is handled. Historical novelists can invent as much as they like within reason, but they ought not to distort the truth.

So I was a bit startled by the paragraph that is dismissive of the Armenian genocide. Set in 1917, the text begins like this: With the Ottoman threat against the Armenians gone…” (underlining mine) and goes on to say that Mikhael knows he should consider himself fortunate that he had escaped the fate of the thousands of Armenians in Van, of the thousands of them now in tented camps in Bacuba.  This paragraph alluding to the fate of the Armenians is whitewash.  This is what happened:

At the orders of Talat Pasha, an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenian women, children, and elderly or infirm people were sent on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert in 1915 and 1916. Driven forward by paramilitary escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to robbery, rape, and massacre. In the Syrian Desert, the survivors were dispersed into a series of concentration camps; in early 1916 another wave of massacres was ordered, leaving about 200,000 deportees alive by the end of 1916. Around 100,000 to 200,000 Armenian women and children were forcibly converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim households. Massacres and ethnic cleansing of Armenian survivors were carried out by the Turkish nationalist movement during the Turkish War of Independence after World War I.

The Armenian Genocide resulted in the destruction of more than two millennia of Armenian civilization in eastern Asia Minor. (Wikipedia, viewed 30/4/21, edited to remove unnecessary links.)

(This genocide has finally been recognised by the US under President Biden.  Australia has still not yet done so.)

The postwar section of the novel loses control of any narrative tension.  It’s full of moralising statements such as Men who dabble in war and conquest seldom understand the value of identity… a theft that can never be undone along with pompous insertions such as It has always been lost on the coloniser that the colonised have the capacity for diplomatic transition.  (The author is so busy raising awareness of the failure of negotiations that she neglects to mention that women were not represented in the delegation at all.)

What could have been a really interesting novel about the history of British intervention in Iraq from a different perspective becomes too heavy-handed. It’s long winded, the love story is clumsy, the idealisation of pre-war Iraq is overdone and the editorialising is tiresome.

Author: Ruqaya Izzidien
Title: The Watermelon Boys
Publisher: Hoopoe Books, 2018
Cover design by e-Digital Design
ISBN: 9789774168802, pbk., 352 pages
Source: personal library

 


Responses

  1. What a shame this didn’t work for you because it seems like such an interesting premise. I’ve only ever read books about WWII from a western perspective so it would be nice to read about it from an entirely different point of view. Is it a translation, or written in English?

    Like

    • You’re right, it should have been a game-changer, getting us to think about all the other theatres of that war and the combatants who came from places other than the ones we know about.
      But the author was so insistent on beating the anti-colonialism drum as if there is something new about her opinions about it, that it swamped the story.

      Like

  2. Wow! There are some serious issues here – definitely not a book I’ll be reading. The dismissal of the Armenian Genocide so lightly is really not on.

    Like

    • No, it’s not.
      I’m open to other people’s points-of-view but some things are not negotiable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Makes me wonder what books on WWI I’ve read from a non-Western perspective. I think Joan London attempts it in Gilgamesh. I also wonder about the end of multicultural (or multi religious) society in the Middle East. The rise of Islamism as a response to Western ‘interference’ is obviously part of it, and as a response to the rise of Israel. I’m glad Izzidien gave it a try. A shame that a ‘paper’ publisher didn’t take it on board and give it a good editing.

    Like

    • Well, exactly… I seem to have read nothing at all from that perspective apart from this one which is what made it so disappointing. (I wouldn’t count Gilgamesh, not because London isn’t from the Middle East herself but because her character is more of an observer than a participant.)
      I haven’t read enough of Middle Eastern Lit to know if it’s a subject that interests them much. It’s always a puzzle to me that those mega-rich oil barons don’t fund translation of Arabic Lit, (the way that the Lontar Foundation funds translation of Indonesian Lit.) You’d think they’d want their PoV more widely known in the English-speaking world and getting books out beyond the borders is a good way to do it.

      Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: